Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased service provision from Ashfield Patient Solutions has reduced the need for patients to attend hospital and lowered their potential exposure to the virus. In turn, our work has lessened the burden on NHS services, allowing them to focus on managing patients with COVID-19 and increasing testing.
Ashfield has always offered virtual patient contact as part of its service, with a reliable, virtual back-up plan in the event that face-to-face visits were not possible. Accordingly, when the virus outbreak began, they were able to switch to virtual visits immediately; using tools such as Zoom and WhatsApp to continue patient contact, whilst continuing to manage patients and Nurse activity effectively with their Trak360 Patient Experience Platform.
Here, Stephanie Hill, Head of Ashfield Patient Solutions UK talks through the company’s response to the pandemic, lessons learned and what has forever changed for the sector.
In-home care more critical than ever
The need to care for patients outside the hospital environment wherever possible has been a recognised solution to aid the healthcare system for many years. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began the need to support patients in their home, instead of their normal care setting, has become even more critical.
Ashfield Patient Solutions has seen an unprecedented increase in requests for patient support. These include patients receiving treatment for a pre-existing condition, participating in clinical trials or who have been supported directly by a secondary care team. The common denominator is that they all now need to be cared for at home to ensure the 1.5 million ‘shielded’ patients across the UK are prioritised during this time.
As the pandemic impacted NHS resources, the use of virtual solutions became paramount to rapidly support this group of patients.
A drive towards digital
The need to fully embrace digital patient communications has been on the horizon for some time. Here at Ashfield, due to proactive planning and early adoption, we were in a strong position to flip this much-needed ‘digital switch’.
In response to the pandemic, our Patient Solutions team has implemented several measures to build services for patients and enable them to be supported at home. Service areas such as patient education, self-management training and phlebotomy have all increased significantly, enabling patients to commence or continue treatment at home effectively.
To ensure the safety of our patients and staff, ‘contact-free care’ has become a necessity. In fact, the vast majority of our services are currently being delivered remotely, with many patients now in favour of remote support as they believe it lowers the risks associated with people entering their homes when shielding.
With our Trak360 Patient Experience Platform, underpinned by Health Cloud from Salesforce, we already had the infrastructure in place to continue to monitor patients effectively as we switched existing services to virtual visits, and at the same time responding to the wave of increased demand for in-home care and support created by the pandemic scenario.
Considering the needs and technology use of specific demographics has always been an important part of the process. Unreliable internet connections, security, patient confidentiality and a reluctance to use technology are potential pitfalls. We have factored these into our approach and developed operational procedures and documentation that ensure patients can always be supported.
While there has been a historical reluctance in the industry to accept the use of digital communications technology in some aspects of patient training, the pandemic has almost completely removed these reservations. Our teams are now running a number of remote programmes and delivering virtual support to patients that was previously delivered face-to-face. This includes injection and some infusion training programmes, where we’ve experienced success with educational videos and the expertise of our nurses on how to self-administer, either by the patient or caregiver.
The flexibility of our virtual approach has been bolstered by the increased availability of nurses as they no longer need to travel to visit every individual patient. This paired with the fact that patients are almost guaranteed to be at home has meant a higher level of successful engagement.
Lessons learned, adapting to a ‘new normal’
Perhaps the biggest lesson we can share is the need to be proactive in future-proofing services. In our efforts to be proactive and move with the digital curve, we have always offered support over email, SMS and telephone, whilst continuing to develop our Trak360 platform for personalised, omnichannel communication. As a result, we have the appropriate protocols and compliance processes in place, meaning an inherent agility to meet the change in channel preference.
We are still seeing patients in the home who cannot adapt to the technological requirements to receive a virtual call or who require care that cannot be provided remotely such as phlebotomy or complex treatment. Ashfield nurses are often the only person entering outside the patient and their immediate family and this will continue regardless of the pandemic.
Our biggest challenge has been managing the influx of requests and to manage this we have implemented robust triaging, ensuring that we understand what the patient needs are. This enables us to meet the requirements of both the NHS and our clients. We have seen our NHS colleagues embrace these new treatment options to support patients, enabling them to focus on in-hospital care of critical COVID-19 patients.
The pandemic has forced many care organisations and their patients to adapt quickly to new ways of communicating, similarly, patient solutions organisations have needed to react quickly to the new demand.
The switch to virtual patient engagement has been key to the successful delivery of care in this environment, and moreover it has been welcomed by patients, the NHS and pharma companies alike.
When lockdown conditions ease, it won’t necessarily mean a return to pre-COVID operations and we believe a significant number of patients will want to continue with the virtual support model due to its inherent safety and convenience. It will be up to patient solutions providers to deliver accordingly, offering a variety of communication channels to meet individual patient preferences.